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Southland Arts Venues Upbeat Despite Empty Seats


Across America, audiences shied away from live theater and performance halls for much of September, then crept back in October, but seldom in large enough numbers to make up for all those lost ticket sales.

In a recent survey aimed at gauging how performing arts organizations are coping with a jittery public, nationwide presenters and producers of music, drama and dance could agree on that much.

But when it comes to this month and beyond, the chorus stops singing in harmony: There's an optimism gap between Southern California organizations and their counterparts elsewhere. The Southern Californians are more upbeat.

"We are geographically removed right now from the tragic issues," said Walter Morlock, marketing director at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, suggesting a possible explanation. "And that gives us more hope that people are going to come out of their homes and not cocoon."

Another theory came from Rich Comito, manager of ticket sales and Internet solutions at Theatre LA, a nonprofit group that counts 185 large and small theaters and companies among its members. Comito noted that "in the '40s, the entertainment industry was the one industry that really wasn't hit by the war, because everybody wanted to escape." Nobody can be sure those circumstances will hold true this time, Comito said, but he hasn't heard a persuasive reason why they wouldn't.

The survey, an unscientific Internet query that drew responses from 833 performing arts groups nationwide, was devised by AMS Planning & Research, a Fairfield, Conn.-based consulting company. Participating groups, which offered up their numbers on condition of anonymity, ranged from small groups in Alaska to major arts organizations in New York and Southern California.

AMS President Steve Wolff cautioned that the results are only a rough measure of a roiling arts marketplace, and noted that the responses don't address the roller coaster of events that have occurred since he stopped posing questions on Oct. 16. But the survey results do offer insights into the nationwide wave of empty seats and canceled performances in those first weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and the Washington, D.C., area.

Before Sept. 11, though many companies were already seeing effects of a softening economy, most respondents saw reason for encouragement. About 38% said advance subscription sales were running ahead of figures for 2000, while 36% said the numbers were flat, and 26% said sales were down. Similarly, 32% of the groups said pre-Sept. 11 advance single-ticket sales were running ahead of last year. (About 51% said they were unchanged, and 17% said their numbers were already down.)

Since then, the picture has changed dramatically. About 21% of respondents said attendance had fallen "substantially" (meaning a drop of 20% to 50%) at performances since Sept. 11. An additional 34% reported smaller declines. The remaining 45% reported either no change or modest increases in audience numbers.

Trying to look a bit further ahead, Wolff and company also asked about overall ticket sales since Sept. 11 (which includes advance sales for performances weeks or months ahead). About 23% of respondents reported substantial declines in sales. And 35% saw more modest declines. About 42% reported no change or modest increases.

Wolff said he and his analysts have been looking to see if certain groups seem to have suffered more (large venues versus small venues, for instance), but so far, he said, the only common thread seems to be apprehension about the months ahead. The next two months, he noted, are frequently the most crucial for fund-raising, and this year's wave of giving to Sept. 11-related charities leaves cultural groups wondering what will be left over.

Overall, the survey's 35 responding Southern California producers and presenters reported results remarkably close to those of their nearly 800 counterparts across the country, Wolff said, except when it came to the year ahead.

Asked to predict ticket sales for the next 12 months, 30% of responding groups nationwide expected sales increases over the last year, 23% forecast flat numbers, and 46% forecast declines.

But among the Southern California groups surveyed, 48% forecast increases in overall ticket sales in the next year. (About 4% forecast no substantial change in figures from the last year and 48% projected declines.)

"The Southern California set is definitely more optimistic," Wolff said. "Let's hope that they're closer to being right."

In Southern California, as throughout the U.S., many performances were canceled on Sept. 11 and 12, and audiences were generally scarce during the week of the attacks, as companies groped for a proper on-stage response.

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